tv The Presidency White House Stonemasons CSPAN November 23, 2017 7:00pm-7:36pm EST
history. learn more about burlington and other stops on our tour at c-span.org/citiestour. you're watching american history tv, all weekend, every weekend, on c-span3. next on the presidency, an interview with historian william seale at the white house. >> white house historian, bill seale, your latest publication with the white house historical association is called a white house of stone, building america's first ideal in architecture. you've written so many books about the white house, why this project about the stone of the white house? >> well, susan, the -- one thing that hadn't been addressed in the book is what's left of the white house. i mean, it's sacred historically, but what really is left and how did it get there? and that's why this book was written. >> so, before we get into the story of the stone, we have to
back up a little bit and talk about the location. how did the white house end up on this spot in washington, d.c.? >> well, of course, it was part of the city plan that george washington approved. it was made by la font, a very avant-garde plan. and it called for a palace, five times the size of this, and the cellars were dug because they were making bricks out of the clay. and washington relocated the house to put it on the axis. there were two axes, one running from the capitol down the mall and one running here. and it runs right through the house of the surveyor's axes. and washington put it right on there so when he reduced the size of the house by a fifth, by four fif four-fifths, he wanted it to still be in the plan, as it was supposed to be, as one of the two great, important buildings in washington. >> we have to remember or remind our viewers that washington in his early career was a surveyor
himself. so he really understood the importance of location. >> he did. and that was one of the bases of his getting along with la font, major la font, who was the engineer. who didn't get along with anyone else, but washington. >> i want to make a note that as you and i are talking, the white house grounds are under construction, and we're going to hear construction noises, they're working on the grounds, but that's actually one of the stories of this building. that it is perpetually -- >> perpetually under construction. >> yeah. >> everything's changed, for various reasons. sometimes, it's the planting of a tree, sometimes it's a removal of the burial of security wires or digging of a basement. it's always under construction. >> bill seale, you say in the book that george washington himself put the first spade in the ground here at this location. why was it so important to washington that this be the site for the white house? >> because the white house was
the smaller of the two buildings specified in the constitution. a house for the congress, a house for the president. he wanted this city to happen and he -- this was a smaller building than the other one and he knew he could finish this one. >> how involved was he along the way in the building of the white house? >> very much. he had basically the final approval of everything. it is stone because he wanted it to be stone. >> well, let's learn about another important character besides george washington. that's james hoeven. who was he? >> james hobeven was from irelad and well trained as a building man and an architect, in the idea of an architect in those days. he could build as well as plan. and he was raised in ireland and he immigrated to the united states to philadelphia and then came here and washington met him in charleston on his southern tour in 1792, and he remembered
him. so when the can competition for a design for this house took place, he invited hoeven to enter it. well, hoeven was the winner from the start, because he came up with a design that washington could understand. there was nothing weird about it. some of the other entries had throne rooms in them and things like that. well, the president wasn't going to do that. this was an english squire's house or an irish squire's house. it wasn't palatial, a country palatial house, except it was in america. but washington liked his plan, approved his plan, modified his plan, and saw to it that it happened. >> what was the basic design architecturally? in a period style? >> it's late georgian, but it is patterned on a house in dublin, ireland. a house of the duke of linster, called linster house, and it's now the capital of ireland. and hoeven had been in skil all
around that building. he knew it well. so he submitted that design. it was modified and i don't know by whom, but the plan as built was much, much more open and simpler. we would call it transparent today. the house has warrens of little rooms, and big, and secret stairs and things. none of that in this house. it's all open. the block of the house is midgeorgia. it was very out of style in england and scotland, of course, but it got the porticos added and it becomes a little bit confused in style. but basically, it was a georgian country house. >> i find it ironic that the europeans thought the house was out of style, and yet it's become one of the most icon ic buildings in the world. >> yes, but even the workmen, the scottish workmen, they weren't doing that kind of work anymore, but they did it here for george washington. he wanted all the carving.
and that was out. the adam brothers had done away anything but the flattest kind of stuff. and they gave him what he wanted it. washington wanted carving. even though he said he knew it was not his style. >> well, your book is about the stones of the white house, so let's move to that important part of the story. once stone was decided upon youb actually found the quarry where the stone came from. tell me about that. >> well, the quarry, it was a sandstone and it's downriver on the potomac. and actually, i didn't find it. it's been preserved, it's been owned by the government, a major part of it since 1791. >> but it's not in use anymore? >> not as a quarry, but the county of stafford, virginia, has taken it and made it a delightful part without hurting it, just little parts through it. it's not trashed up oar anything. so it's available for all to see
down in stafford county. but it was the closest stone they could get. the commissioners worried that stld -- see, there was no way to test how much stone or rock you had in these quarries, except by sounding. but the moenld knew what they were doing and they would sound for the stone and they felt it was enough, and so la font himself actually signed the deal and bought this area, which was a quarry, a small quarry, over a hundred years old. and the government expanded it over time with leases, but that one park, wiggins island, they've kept and is still there. and that's where the first stones came from, rocks came from that became stones, that became poled up the river on flat boats, to the site. >> you really tell in both words and illustrations the back-breaking labor involved in quarrying this stone and bringing it up the potomac. would you tell me that story?
>> well, first, they had the clear the site. and they hired slaves from plantations to come in and do it. they built a huge kitchen and quarters for them to live in and everything. and they worked dawn to dusk, clearing away the trees and bushes. and then they went in and began splitting the stone. and many of the slaves were involved, but they were under the direction of a stone mason named williamson. and it's funny how simple it all was. they would drill a hole in the rock and put a green stick down in it. and then poor water on the stick. about a 5-foot stick. and it would expand and split the stone. that's how they did this. and then they would get these pieces and they would make them smaller and smaller. they knew the sizes of rough stone they needed. take them and haul them to a ramp that went down in the water, of the creek.
and the boat was waiting for them, and loaded them on there, take them down the creek, against the current, to the potomac river and kind of stayed in the areas against the bank, where the stone -- where the water wasn't so swift. and they poled those boats, upriver, 40 miles, to the site of the white house, actually not exactly, there was a stone yard on the river bank. and they had to judge the stones and trim some. then the ones they selected were put up a canal with locks to the stop and put on skids for the oxen to pull to the site. and it was all very methodical. the stones were numbered. when they got to the stoneyard, there were papers with the sizes they kneaded. they used area -- surprise imply few tools, but they did.
and there was a stone yard, where the stone had to be -- had to relieve itself of the sap -- quarry sap, which was water it had gathered a as a rock. and it would drip and drain. and then as it dried, they would bring it to the table, still subject to approval, bring it to the tables and it would be shaped, exactly as it was needed in the walls. and there were drawings. goodness, we would love to have them, but they got beat up, you know? they used them. so they threw them away. we've never found any. but we can tell from the bills -- my work is based on bills and invoices of what they were doing. and so a stone that was approved got put on the cutting table and was made -- cut into size. if it was going to have carving on it, enough was left on the front of the stone or what would be the face of the house. enough was left on the stone to carve into. the carving is not stuck on.
the carving is carved into the stone. so that was just left as a plank. there are a few of them still on the white house. and the blanked then later would be carved and placed in the wall. >> you said you based your research on the bills, the invoices. where were all of those kept over the years? >> national archives. >> and who was responsible for keeping them? >> in those days, there was, of course, no archive until franklin roosevelt. so they were kept in the commissioner's office, there was a commission appointed by washington to manage all of this. the commission wasn't so good. they were not paid. they were gentlemen, they knew nothing about building. the second commission was more informed and so these papers would all be kept by them. and i guess they, you know, managed them through, threw drawings away if any existed. and -- and those papered were
still in the office building in the 1930s. well, now they're available in the national archives, beautifully cared for. >> as this is all being brought from the quarry upriver, what was happening to this site, to ready the building for this part of the process. >> well, they had the foundation, and it was so huge, the cellars were so enormous, they filled them and then began building foundation walls, which began with rubble and broken bricks and things and then stone came up. and a stone mason from scotland, named collin williamson, came in and bewitched the commission. they hired him at once to do everything. realize, this was the first commission. and he began the construction of this stone and the base of the white house was solid stone. the basement. what we would call the basement. you know, it's built on a ridge, the house is. so it sits here and it's a
two-story house from the north, where we are. and then it drops down a story, the basement was exposed to the south sun to dry. that's where the kitchens were and the meat rooms and that kind of thing. and ultimately, the service rooms. they were supposed to be in like europe, in the attic, but they were all scared because it was so high. it was such a huge building at the time. and it was reduced the story to save money. but when they presented this to george washington, sense, that's fine, but then he enlarged the rest. he was going to have what he wanted and he did get what he wanted. so at the site, they were making bricks like mad, using what was dug out, and others. there were two brick yards. and they brought an expert from philadelphia, jeremiah cale. and the foundation stones were built up and then the corner stone was laid, which was a
piece of brass about like that with everybody's name on it. and it was mashed into the mortar and a stone was put on top of it. it's never been found. >> never been found. isn't that something? >> i suspect it was stolen. they didn't want that house built. and people wanted to move the capital to philadelphia. and -- or keep it in philadelphia. and everybody -- washington wasn't there, so this cornerstone laying was not as decorous as the one at the capital. the one at the capital was very formal. this one got kind of rowdy. and they went down to rhodes tavern and drank all night. but after that, a guard was put at the place 24 hours a day. so i suspect something went on that we don't know about and that they didn't want anybody to know about here. i suspect it's in the bottom of the potomac somewhere, the corner plate. so then conduction began. and collin williamson was an expert. he had worked -- he was from the
highlands, in scotland. he had worked for the powerful grant family. there's still a house there that he built and his name is still there when he was born in the little church, when he was christened and all. but he was a man in his 60s when he came here. and he was -- got irritated at people, particularly people who were irish. and james hoeven, that we talked about earlier, was really the superintendent. so they clashed, big-time. the basement then level was built by collin williamson and it's a beautiful piece of work. and while that was going on, they were building the vaulting inside, because they wanted to have floors, which they never had until years later. >> so the white house lawn today is beautifully landscaped. what was the scene like while this house was being constructed. >> well, it was pretty torn up, but orderly. they built houses for the workmen and they were 12 x 12
little colleges, separated by about 10 feet. and they were in rows and they were part of the job. they didn't have to pay to have those. where andrew jackson is across the street in lafayette park was the carpenter's lodge, where the carpenters worked. and half the churches in town were founded there and the ma sonic order, they're all the stone people were masons. in fact, many others, as well. so the ma sonic lodge, capital lodge number one still exists, was formed there. and it was like a village. there were gardens. the family -- different families had a few wives were accumulated and sometimes they came with the workmen and they had gardens, they had flocks and they had markets where lafayette park is now or pennsylvania avenue. and that became a real event on saturdays. they had horse races, lots of
gambling. and it was a whole village that disappeared when the house was finished. >> how many years was it altogether? >> altogether, i would say, let's say '92 to about 1800, they were lingering. they began selling the houses. people bought the houses. some people had connected the houses with permission on the 10 feet, roofed it. james hoeven did, as a matter of fact, when he got married. they let him have several houses to put together. so williamson made himself expendable with his arguments and battles over the irish. he just couldn't stand them. because the scotts were more orderly. the irish were pretty wild. most of them. there was a brothel here and lots of booze. and hoeven controlled him by making him join the militia. and they had to come to militia
meetings or they got fined out of their salaries. so he control ld his men, but williamson just couldn't stand it. he was hold. and so he quit, spent his life here in washington. and then the project went on. at that point, the commission, of course, all of them were skots. there are skots acots all over area, settled storekeepers and millers and all those people. and they sent to scotland to find stone masons, because by reputation, the scots were the greatest stone makes on earth. they weren't as ornamental as the italians who worked on the capitol later, but they were great stone masons. they were on jobs in russia and france and everywhere. so lo and behold, they did find -- they were lucky -- in ed din burro, they were on hard times. newtown was being built. that was a new edition to the town. and the adams brothers designed
it. and the stone mason could build the lot. and they had to build the facade like adams planned, but could put anything behind it. so they're kind of real estate people here. and they were in debt and england established in '93 this moratorium on building and skilled workmen were not allowed to leave the country because of the impending trouble with the french during the french revolution. so our scotts were found in -- they were prominent businesspeople. they were found through their a masonic lodge there in edinburgh, and within the lodge was operative lodge eight, working stone masons, seven of them and possibly others with them slipped out from the western coast of scotland, sc e sailed to norfolk and walked to the site here in washington. >> they walked from norfolk, virginia, to virginia? >> yeah. people didn't think of anything like that then.
i guess that's why they lived so long, some of them. but the scots, they were very organized men. they were heads -- crews of workmen back there, so they were highly organized and they brought the house to completion. they knew how to interact. a lot of the other workmen were not experienced at all. apprenticeship, for example, was very difficult here. because the boys wouldn't stay. they would just leave. and the papers are full of ads for the apprentices fled, georgetown papers, alexandria papers. >> so what was the specific role of the scottish masons who came to work on the white house? >> the scottish masons built the stone walls. and the stone walls are about that thick and were backed with about 3 feet of brick. not brick meant to be exposed to the weather, but brick that was to be protected. so it's not the strong brick that you would have on the outside of a building. and if you want to see that
brick, samples of it, the green house in mt. vernon was reconstructed using that brick. they're exactly the size, specified, great big ones, and that's what lined these stone walls. but these stone walls were built as you face the white house on the left through the stone yards and on the right, the brick. and there was immediate cooperation between the stonemen and the brick men. many of whom were irish. and that worked well. the vaulting in the basement. the growing vaulting was beautiful. and it lasted until the truman renovations and then it was replaced with steel. but it's imitated down there now. with that vaulting to support the heavy house. and the brick masons built that with the stone mason's cooperation. and the house rose. and it was identifiable when washington made his last trip
here from philadelphia, after he left office. they parked out in front of the north portico here, its carriage. he and mrs. washington were in -- his granddaughter, step granddaughter, and george washington lafayette. the son of lafayette, who had been sent to safe him from the french level resolutirevolution, with was with him. and they stopped and hoeven had the militia that he forced everyone to join give a 21-gun salute from the walls of the house. and it was finished enough not to have windows yet or any of that, but washington could see what it looked like. >> so george washington saw his vision, but he never was able to enter a completed white house? >> no, not to our knowledge. >> so people should know that there were three basic classes of workers. there were the elite scottish mason who is did the stone work and the carving. there was an irish workers and then there were slaves. >> labor, but more.
the scottish stone masons preferred the hired slaves to apprentices. they picked up fast. it was a desirable job for a slave, the contracts were extensive about what they had to be fed, how they had to be clothed, how they were cared for, but they learned a skill, so it was an advantage to them in perhaps buying freedom after it was over. they were no longer really laberrlaber laborers. they had learned skills and the scotts did teach them on the job. and i would say about 30% of the working force was black, were slaves. and they didn't have any trouble with them. but they were in every aspect of the word. >> would you talk a bit about the decorative carving on the building and what's special about it? >> well, the decorative -- >> the building is decoratively
carved, because george washington wanted a carving. and he even said in a letter to the commissioners, he said, i don't think it's so much in fashion anymore, however he wanted it and he had a way of saying, i require it, and he didn't explain. so he got it and the stone masons got him what he wanted. there were two of them who remained and most of the masons, the stone masons went back home. two did remain here. and one remained permanently. probably had been married here, i don't know. but they carried out this incredible out of style carving, it's so beautiful, that the greatest part of it is a 14-foot swag or a festoon over the front door, which is carved with li lilies and flowers and griffins and acorns and everything you could think of. it's very lush, over the front door. probably the finest example of carving in america for a hundred
years. it was beautiful. and the columns they did, cresting the columns, it's not gaudily done. and when you walk down the street on pennsylvania avenue, you don't really see the carving. it's too far from you. you see the bulk of the house. but the carving is really special. and one thing that was worked out this time in research is i always wondered what those cabbage roses were in the top of the columns. because that's not classical work. usually they're flat like a dogwood or those old flat-timy roses they're bringing back now which are flat, that's what you usually find on a classical column, nearly always. these are lush, lots of petals and all that. well, it seems that in the 1780s, the scots propagated a double rose, called a scottish double rose. it swept europe like crazy.
everybody had to have a scottish double rose. empress josephine had them. they were everywhere. george iii had them. everybody had them. and finally, you know, we should have figured that out 20 years ago, but we didn't. and that's what they -- that's their trademark, their gift to the house is the scottish rose. >> so the house was completed in 1800 and then the british had something to say about it. not very long after. what happened in the war of 1812? >> well, it's the -- our part of the napoleonic wars, and in august of 1814, the british attacked here and burned the public buildings. the capitol wasn't finished, but this one was. and it was burned as a military thing. it wasn't vandalism. they considered it a military act. they set the house on fire on the middle floor. and it burned the attic out and then it all collapsed into the main floor and it was literally
a vessel. it was just the stone walls remain. and all of those, some of those were so burnt, but a fire broke out about 1:00 in the morning. the fire started at 11:00. about 1:00 in the morning, the rain came and of course, it cracked stones like crazy, that cold water. and the house was rebuilt, but largely, what's there is what the scots built. and the carving is the same and it was exceed when the porticos were put on, the rose was kept. so the themes that the scottish stone masons started have been continued on the house. the house was finished for new year's 1818. and james monroe had a big reception, president monroe, on the state floor, as you call the main floor, and all the workmen had the same reception down below, with big tables and sawhorses and plenty of beer and wine and crackers. they seem to like crackers an
awful lot from the bill that the president made and meats and so forth. so it was a double celebration. >> the basic design of a georgian house is essentially a wre rectangle. the house is famous for its porticos. when were they added and by what president? >> the porticos were probably thought about during jefferson's time. but they came along -- hoeven claimed he denied them. and charles bullfence, an architect sort of favored president monroe, went to hoeven's house and took drawings of the porticos down off the frames in the wall -- on the wall. and copied them, traced them. so hoeven really designed them, but the idea may go back to jefferson, may not. latrobe always claimed he had designed them. and he did some drawings of porticos. it's not very clear, but they were put on and i don't think there was any -- they didn't prepare for them, originally. there was a porch put on the
north front of the house, but it was just a path. it had to be enlarged for the portico. but the vault is so under there. and the south portico which was completed first in 1824, and that podium was there, that is the floor was there. and the columns were added and the roof. it's not a port co, but it's called a port co, it doesn't have the triangular pediment, but the north is a portico. it was added 29 to '32. and hoeven did it all. he was the director and building and the architect. and he died soon after the north portico was finished. >> i want to get one more story in, and that is of a president who helped to preserve these walls. you said the premise of this book is that the original stone walls are really all that remains of the white house that george washington built. harry truman came and realized that it was in such disrepair that major, major reconstruction had to happen.
what was his role in preserving the stone walls? >> everything. president truman, he loved history. and he loved symbols in history very much. it may be coming from his masonic background, i don't know. but he had a deep perception of symbols. and when the architects told him they were going to demolish it and rebuild it, he said, no. he worried about it and worried about it. and finally, he went to yale and they had rebuild a building there and leaving the outside was their old 18th century. rebuilding that and the uh in building inside, and he decided, that's what would happened, and he brought george over, the architect of that to hear. and they gutted the house and sent everything to -- not everything, but most of it to trash out of ft. meyer landfill. and the house was reconstructed in steel -- steel frame, within
those original walls. there's that much space between them. the steal and the wall. the walls were not conserved until later. but the house was rebuilt and looked about like it did. it was more like a public building, maybe. no wooden floors. it didn't have that saggy feeling in it always had that franklin roosevelt loved, because he loved old houses, but truman rebuilt it so the main thing would happen, the president would stay in the president's house. he was very emphatic about that. and in fact, as the sub-cellars were being dug, they needed a bulldozer and a dump truck. and they came by and they were about to widen the door with air hammers. and he said, stop, you can't do that. so they had to take the bulldozer and the truck all down to the equipment, take it in, build it back, and that's how they dug the basement. there was enough space under the wall for a driveway to take them
out. he was emphatic and he saved these walls. he saved the mystique of the white house, really. president truman did. >> you mentioned that he didn't conserve. that's probably where we'll end. one of the properties you write about in the book of this sandstone is that it's very porous and also subject to deterioration. so how was the sandstone preserved? >> do you mean in the modern times or the old times it was preserved -- >> well, there's two good stories. >> the scots had -- there's a craigly stone. you can still shoot a hose on it and watch the water go down. so they always whitewashed it. they had their hone recipe with flattened beer and a lot of weird things and they put it on with brooms and it went in the crevices, the little holes in the stone and stayed while the rain might watch in scotland,
the rain would wash off most of it over 10 or 20 years. but it would leave the hole filled, so when it froze, it wouldn't crack and split the stone. well, here, of course, nobody wants to live in a dirty house. they did the whitewash, and it was done several times before the fire in 1814. but after the fire, they reused almost everything. president madison just considered it a repair. and so there were these big black licks all over the stone. so they put lead-based paint and the first time the house was ever painted was 1817. before, it had been whitewashed. and there's a doorway in the areaway on the north side of the house where you can see still see it's a magnificent doorway out of gibbs' architectural guide and it shows the ornament, it's an original door. it's the ornament and the stains
of the fire, the soot still on it. on collin williamson's basement. >> and in modern times, they were able to preserve it how? >> rex scouten, who was chief usher then, began to be concerned, because the house was being painted every year and the expense of it was terrible. so he came up with a project and presented it to president jimmy carter, who enthusiastically supported it and a project of cleaning the stone down to the original stone took place. it took 20 years. it was repaired with plugs, with splices, with every kind to make it perfect. and then it was repainted in the bill clinton administration. so that is how it's preserved in the most professional standards now, concerning stone. >> so is this stone house here to stay? >> oh, i think so. i don't think a president would ever leave. >> though, but in the sense of the conservation of the stone?
>> oh, yeah, it's here to stay, because it's lovingly cared for. there's a whole staff of building people here and you have the national parks service who have been the stewards of it now since franklin roosevelt, '33. no, it's watched very carefully. and of course, we have the secret service all around watching. so anything that goes wrong is fixed. so it's very carefully maintained. more so than the days of the general grant when he called out the fire department to shoot the hose on the house and clean it so he didn't have to paint it. >> the great thing about you is that there's always more stories, but unfortunately, we have to end. bill seale, white house historian, whose latest book is called "a white house of stone: building america's first ideal in architecture." you know, the old expression is always, if these stones could talk. you've managed to make the stones talk in your new book. >> thank you, susan. >> thank you for telling the story. >> gr